If Arsenal's defeats on Wednesday and Saturday marked another year of Arsenal being trophy-less, the manner of the defeats also suggested a deeper, more serious malaise. AC Milan and Sunderland are two vastly different teams, but both defended deeply against Arsenal, snuffing out creativity through the middle, and, through pressing, making it difficult to spread the play into wide areas. This defensive system, though, is hardly revolutionary; Alex McLeish used it in last year's Carling Cup final, Manchester City weren't terribly adventurous in the Carling Cup this year, and Alex Ferguson played Rafael and Fabio as wingers in last year's FA Cup quarterfinal. Home draws against defensive minded sides like Sunderland, Blackburn and Liverpool, along with losses to Bolton and Stoke effectively ended Arsenal's title challenge last season, a challenge made harder by a home loss to a very defensive Newcastle. Arsenal's struggles against these sides have been well documented and have occurred for quite a long time.
Arsene Wenger has never been a very tactically minded manager; the sides that won the league in 1998, 2002 and 2004 were noted for their technical sophistication, which is not always the same as tactical sophistication. Domestically, at least, Arsenal had the quality to work themselves out of holes, just by focusing on their game. Arsenal, though, underachieved in Europe; despite beating Inter Milan 5-1 at the San Siro, they never progressed past the quarter finals in the Champions League, despite possessing one of the best teams in English football history. European football, for the most part, is more sophisticated, tactically and technically, than the Premier League, which is why it took Manchester United until 1999 to win the Champions League; the extremely attacking style of football left them too open in Europe, where they failed to get out of the group stage or first round of the UEFA Cup twice out of 6 seasons (and one of the times they did, they went out in the second round of the Champions League after drawing 3-3 at home to Galatasary). Arsenal seemed to have the same problem; there were some extremely impressive results, like beating Inter 5-1, beating Juventus at Highbury 3-1, but until the 2005-06 season, when Arsenal got to the final, they seemed to underachieve in Europe. That season, beset by injuries, Arsene Wenger was forced to play a more counter attacking style, and, on the back of Martin Keown's coaching, Arsenal's defence set a record for clean sheets. Aside from that, though, it's hard to think of Wenger changing his style of play mid-season, or preparing for the opposition. Cesc Fabregas spoke of that during the 2010 World Cup; Arsenal never prepare for the opposition (except, seemingly, Barcelona), preferring to focus on their own style of play, whereas Spain always did. When faced with problems, Wenger wants his players to work out solutions.
That would be fine, except a lot of Arsenal's players lack the experience and the technical quality that the Invincible side had in abundance. There are all sorts of reasons for that, such as the stadium move, having to rebuild his team twice in the last 6 years and also the lack of funds given to him by the profit driven board and owner, but this Arsenal side isn't as good as the Invincibles side, and, the Premier League has developed more tactical sophistication. With that in mind, Arsene Wenger's own tactical sophistication had to improve, which it didn't. Against teams that denied them space behind opposition defensive lines, Arsenal have consistently struggled. That denying of space makes them look like they lack ideas, and are passing merely for the sake of passing, not because it will lead to a chance. Then, when Arsenal need some invention and ideas from their own manager, the substitution that is made is usually to bring on an extra striker when the problem seems to be a lack of creativity. Yesterday's change seems a good case in point; against a team that was defending deeply, Wenger brought on Theo Walcott, a self-confessed striker, but a player who hasn't played through the middle since at least the early part of 2007/08 because of his lack of strength, poor runs through the middle and because he doesn't fit the requirements of a striker in Arsenal's style of play. Walcott's main asset, of course, is pace; against a team that isn't allowing space in behind, this seems a very odd change, not least because it forced Robin van Persie to drop deeper. If Wenger thought there was a chance Arsenal could poach a goal, why didn't he leave van Persie up front and bring on Andrey Arshavin or Yossi Benayoun who could provide extra creativity, or Marouane Chamakh, who'd offer at least the chance of winning knock-downs.
Last week, the introduction of Arshavin and Henry won the game for Arsenal, but Walcott is not Thierry Henry, and Arshavin was left on the bench (Wenger was hamstrung by injuries to Coquelin and Ramsey, yes, but with 37 minutes left, it seems too early to become desperate, so bringing on Arshavin seems the right choice). Against AC Milan, Arsenal lacked width in the first half, and then compounded the problem by bringing Thierry Henry on for Theo Walcott, before finally bringing on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain after 70 minutes. Increasingly, these are not isolated incidents; against Fulham, when Arsenal couldn't hold the ball and Fulham were pushing up, Wenger took off the two players who could've provided an outlet, Gervinho and Theo Walcott. Against Swansea, Wenger brought on Thierry Henry, who went through the middle, leaving the whole left flank to Ignasi Miquel, an area where Swansea got their winning goal. Arsenal's plan B is usually to bring on a striker when creativity is the problem; when under pressure, the change is made to bring on more ball players when not having the ball is the problem. This is at odds with the plan B of Manchester United and Barcelona; both managers increase their chances of scoring a goal by putting on more players who are likely to create a goal. Alex Ferguson drops Antonio Valencia to right back, and Pep Guardiola can bring on Thiago and Fabregas while dropping Sergio Busquets deeper. Obviously Arsenal don't have creative players as good as Fabregas, but they do have some very technically proficient midfielders in Yossi Benayoun and Andrey Arshavin who aren't playing. It also is at odds with simple managing; you don't take off outlets when under pressure, and you don't bring on a "striker" who's only asset is going to be pace against a deep-lying side.
Because Arsenal always seem to struggle against teams that defend deeply and counter, it's hard to see when they might win a trophy that doesn't involve beating that kind of team. Sunderland were lucky yesterday; but that's the umpteenth time Arsenal have been beaten by that kind of team. Aston Villa nearly knocked Arsenal out doing the same thing a round earlier, before falling to increasing Arsenal pressure, and losing their shape, and failing to track the fullbacks, something that Birmingham, Sunderland and Manchester United last year, were happy to do. Arsenal no longer have the quality to win a league title, nor, seemingly, do they have the tactical nous to win a Cup. Arsene Wenger can lead Arsenal to a 3rd or 4th place finish and maybe a quarter or semi-final, an achievement that is fine, but, if Arsenal want to return to a consistent trophy-winning side, they'll likely have to do it without their best ever manager. As Wenger looks on from the bench, getting more and more frustrated, it's hard not to think that football has passed him by.